Brian Monteith: New Year a good time for MSPs to make an effort

POLITICIANS’ batteries better be recharged by the festive break, as the resolutions they should have made will need energy, writes Brian Monteith

Thanks to Christmas and New Year’s Day falling on a Tuesday, many people have enjoyed a full two-week break. For Scotland’s politicians, whose minds, if not their bodies, are rarely stood down from being on call 24/7 to answer any question put to them or help any constituent in need, it has been a welcome opportunity to recharge their batteries.

Jokes are made about the generous recess periods that the public likes to call holidays but, always with an eye on the next election, practically all politicians use their absence from Holyrood or Westminster to spend more time meeting the public and running surgeries in supermarket canteens.

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The last few weeks will have provided time for some quiet reflection, not least among the party leaders, about what they need to achieve in the next 12 months and what New Year resolutions would best help them in 2013.

For Alex Salmond, his goal, even if he will not outwardly admit it, must be to re-establish the degree of trust that he undoubtedly enjoyed with the Scottish public between 2007 and 2011. The first election he faces personally is not until 2015, but the independence referendum is now only next year and if the Yes vote is to be maximised the charms of Salmond that have worked so well on former supporters of the unionist parties need to be at least as attractive as before.

By the tail end of last year the First Minister’s once cheeky and forgivable bluster and bravado had descended into quite open ducking and diving that made him look no worse, but also no better, than all the other politicians that the public has previously tired of. The First Minister needs another failure in public trust like David Cameron needs a Ukip by-election victory – the difference is that securing trust is in the gift of Salmond.

A good New Year resolution for the First Minister would be: “I shall tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” when speaking in public. (What he says privately to his supporters is up to him, although consistency in honesty would mean not having to remember what he said to people the last time he spoke to them.)

For Johann Lamont, the New Year brings more opportunities than challenges; opportunities to reconnect with ordinary Scottish people and the challenge of stamping her authority on her party.

I still don’t think Scottish Labour has truly understood the gulf it created with those it considers its own people between 1999 and 2007, especially after the death of Donald Dewar. It adopted a patronising and detached managerialism that had little to do with socialism or even social democracy, but reflected the ideas of public health bullies, educational levellers and bureaucratic jobsworths.

Through the introduction of a repressive smoking ban, the failure to progress the specialist and academy schools that were proving so successful in England, and the growth of government agencies and quangos that made a mockery of devolution’s claim to improve accountability, Scottish Labour encouraged the closure of local pubs and bingo halls that provided community centres for adults to gather, allowed Scottish education to fall into relative decline, and made the delivery of public services more complicated and further removed from the ordinary citizen.

Johann Lamont can solve this, not by attacking Alex Salmond’s government (for in truth he has quite intentionally done little in his five years of power) but reassessing what the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in Scotland did wrong in its eight years of dominance, and offering to correct it.

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She should allow some limited reforms to the smoking ban – that has not delivered the health benefits often claimed of it; launch an initiative that would allow greater freedoms for headteachers to define their schools by adopting cultural, scientific, vocational and academic specialisms – a policy that works well in countries where social democracy is the norm; and promise to make agencies and quangos accountable to the committees of the Scottish Parliament.

While she does that with one hand, she could usefully use the other to bang the heads of Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and Alistair Darling together so that they bury their own personal agendas, forget their future careers and work in unison to make Better Together mean what it says. She must make it known she will not tolerate personal advancement at the cost of losing percentage points to the SNP.

For Lamont, a good New Year resolution would be: “I shall return the Labour Party to the people who once voted for it by taking it away from those who merely benefit from it.”

The trouble Ruth Davidson faces is that she has already ruled out so many of the answers that looked likely to offer Conservative supporters hope – simply because they were advocated by her former leadership opponent, Murdo Fraser. Having completed her first year at the helm, she must use 2013 to define what she and her party stand for – and that must mean using her own words and her own formula to explain why the party uses the words “Scottish” and “Conservative”.

For Davidson, a vital New Year resolution must be: “I shall redefine the Scottish Conservatives as Scottish, by accentuating what makes us Scottish – and Conservative, by emphasising why it is the natural Scottish disposition.”

The greatest challenge must be that faced by Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie in leading a party that, despite its great history, looks destined to electoral annihilation and is currently behind Ukip in the polls. But all is not lost. The Holyrood elections will fall after those for Westminster, and in the two years after the independence referendum there will be many disheartened SNP supporters looking for a new champion offering greater powers that we might call home rule.

For Rennie, a helpful New Year resolution would be: “I shall bang the Home Rule drum on every street corner, on every farm and on every island so long as the day breaks.”

It is only the first week in January and already there’s much to be done.